When the Wisconsin Badgers football team takes the field at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, it will have a chance to claim the unofficial title of the best squad in the program's history. A big win against third-ranked Texas Christian University could lead to a final ranking of number two nationally, the best for a Badger team in the Bowl Championship Series era.
What sticks out even more is how fun the 2010 Badgers have been for fans to follow. David Gilreath's game-opening kickoff return against Ohio State; Brad Nortman's fake punt at Iowa; defensive end J.J. Watt's eight swatted passes; punishing runs from tailback John Clay, er, James White, no wait, Montee Ball. The season has been a blast, but it may be seen in a less charming light if Wisconsin can't pull off a win on Saturday.
Despite having compiled their 12-0 record in the disrespected Mountain West conference, the Horned Frogs are favored - at least by Vegas odds makers - to win. To many, TCU represents the best chance to discredit the BCS system, which prefers teams from big conferences in its quest to crown an unofficial national champion. The Frogs have been trying for years to prove they can beat anyone; this is their chance.
Like Wisconsin's, TCU's offense stresses a running game, with backs averaging 5.5 yards a carry, the same as the Badgers. But they're no slouches in the passing game, either. Senior quarterback Andy Dalton's 167 rating is fifth in the country, right behind Badger Scott Tolzien's 169.8.
On defense, the Horned Frogs are ranked number one in the country, giving up only 11.4 points and 215.4 yards per game with a stingy 89 on the ground. (Wisconsin averages 247 yards rushing per game.) Their 4-2-5 scheme (four down linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs) is designed to be flexible in covering both the run and the pass.
"It is really not overly complicated," said Wisconsin receiver Nick Toon when asked about the TCU defense this week in Pasadena. "It is a little unorthodox, and you don't see it every day, but you just need to go out and make your adjustments just like any other game."
A team's success in using a 4-2-5 defense depends on the ability of its strong safety to cover wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, and TCU might have the best strong safety in the country in senior Tejay Johnson, an All-American from Fort Worth.
"They do a great job of disguising things," said Montee Ball on Monday. "This is why we need to make sure we are really focused."
The 2010 Badgers have distinguished themselves by an ability to focus. Expectations for a great season started almost immediately after they handled a talented Miami team, 20-14, in the Champs Sports Bowl last December. Coach Bret Bielema addressed this at his first press conference of the season in August.
"I realize this year we have a number of high expectations that are on our radar," he said. "And our kids have embraced that and really bought into the mentality of the only way we can even guarantee any success in our first game or the last game of the year, whenever it may be, is just do our work today."
That theme is reflected in a lot of what the players say to reporters - or, in the case of J.J. Watt, on Twitter. The dynamic defensive end's motto is "Dream big, work hard," and despite appearing hokey, it seems to have been embraced by his teammates. Fans don't hear boasting from these Badgers, many of whom are almost reluctant to talk about themselves.
Tolzien, who leads the nation with a .743 completion percentage, finished the 70-23 win over Northwestern on Nov. 27, which clinched the Rose Bowl trip, with 230 yards passing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. He immediately deflected an opportunity to talk about the success of the passing game.
"I think it starts with the running game, and kind of always has," he said after the game. "Even a prelude to that, just the way the offensive line has been playing. They really got the ship rolling early, and it really makes it easier on the passing game."
Excellence on the field and humility off it? These are qualities that make a team special. A win on Saturday would make it legendary.